Directions of the CSR movement

For the past five decades we have seen a tremendous development within the CSR movement from a few hippies in the sixties shouting curses at Dow Chemicals to businesses build on the idea of sustainability such as the Body shop and Starbucks. This blog is about what I think will happen in the next few years. The list is far from complete but gives an overview of some of the trends that will shape CSR in the coming years.

Codes of conducts as a “license to operate”. Code of conducts was, a few years ago, seen as a source of competitive advantage, and to some businesses a method to organise its philanthropic efforts. Today they are seen as something that most international businesses have as part of their normal business approach and more a given than an extra feature. Even companies like A.P.Møller-Maersk that until recently did almost nothing within sustainability is now implementing Codes of Conduct and have become member of the Global Compact.

Moving from a fragmented approach to CSR companies now work strategically with philanthropy and stakeholder engagement/management. As described by Porter and Kramer there are real advantages to be gained by working strategically and long-term with the company’ philanthropic activities (Porter & Kramer, 2002). And companies are using philanthropy to gain access to students and other important resources that they will need for their future growth. Apple computers have successfully engaged with university students as part of their strategy, which has moved the company from being marginalised in the market to be directly comparable with Microsoft.

The further evolution of sustainable and social risk management into real tools for business. Where companies engaged with stakeholders because they represented a business risk they would in the future also be part of business development. Globalization have meant that business have expanded its scope and reach significantly. Fuelled by waves of liberation in developing and emerging markets have initiated a significant increase in contact with countries and regions that can be categorized as difficult to do business in. The increased sphere of contact and influence have spread to every coroner of the world and is to a large extend fuelled by the prospect of high returns, first mover advantages and market shares (Haufler, 1997, Mehmet, 1999, Banfield et al., 2003, Gouldbourne, 2003,

Jamali & Mirshak, 2010). According to the World Bank some 1,5 billion people are affected by organised violence or conflicts (World Bank, 2012), this number constitute roughly one fifth of the total population of the world making it one of the world’s biggest social issues. Conflicts are present in all parts of the world and have a direct or indirect impact on the lives of everybody on the planet either through social ties or as part of our professional lives. For people who are directly affected it is an ever-present threat that invades all activities and decision making processes, for the societies involved it puts social lives and development in a state of suspended animation. To a large extend the issues that business needs to confront are outside what can be considered the norm within traditional risk management strategies (RMS) because the issues are socially embedded and complex (Holzman et al, 2003). As seen in the case with Starbucks NGO and companies can work together on areas of common interest and create new products and services (Austin & Reavis, 2004).

Social responsible investments or SRI will become more and more influential on driving investment decisions and thereby the choices of management. It is not argued that investment companies will become more social conscious but customers like institutional investors will become more and more concerned about how they are growing their portfolios (Hawken, 2004). This will not happen because they suddenly become aware that they have a significant social or environmental impact but that the customers of instructional investors are starting to wonder how their pensions are growing.

The raise of the corporate citizen. The idea of corporate citizenship was first seen a few decades ago (Crane & Matten, 2010). The idea of corporations as citizens with obligations and rights really saw its emergence with several big international finance scandals such as scandal around Enron and Arthur Anderson around the turn of the century. The idea of a corporate citizen comes from the notion that companies like people have an obligation to the community they are part of. This means that they are obliged to behave in accordance with ethical norms formulated by society. In many ways the corporate citizen come from the idea of engagement with salient stakeholders and acting in accordance with their expectations and wishes. While there are many companies that claim corporate citizenship a very have moved beyond mere rhetoric.

The inter-linkage between CSR and development studies. Will further develop and as we will see in this book gender will be one of the lessons learned from the field of development studies that will define corporate behaviour in the years to come. For decades development practitioners have known that economic growth, democratisation and security does not happened in a vacuum and that development a sustainable business climate is linked to society and governance structures. As companies increasingly becomes global even at very early stages of business lifecycle so does the issues that they have to confront. But as older companies have had time to cope with different cultures and business environments young entrepreneurs does not have the same privilege. In essence this means that they will have to experience a much steeper learning curve of they are going to survive on the global marketplace. The tools that have been refined through years of development studies will be an integrated part of creating a sustainable business platform for the future.

Since the 80’ties have seen large-scale privation of traditional state enterprises in areas like transportation, communication, healthcare, energy and infrastructure. Mostly influenced by neoliberal thinking in United Kingdom and United States were large-scale privatisation programs were implemented under Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (Bhagwati, 2007:98, Harvey, 2005:57ff). As this happened private business also found its way into areas traditionally controlled by the state and as time have progressed more and more areas have seen either total takeover by private business as we have seen in telecommunication, part privatisation with majority state ownership as with railroads or private companies in direct competition with or as a alternative to state institutions as we have seen in Healthcare and Private security companies (Harvey, 2005, Dicken, 2003, Klein, 2000, Friedman, 2007).

The concept of CSR have found it’s way into the business world largely due to the weakening of the state and as a result of pressure by stakeholder groups to act as information have been more widely available from even the most remote part of the world. Word like ‘Sweatshop’ and ‘child labour’ would not have found its way into everyday language if it had not been for the increased transparency and persistence of stakeholders who have come forward within the last two decades.

CSR as Standards and Reporting

Logo of Global Reporting Initiative

Last week I had a short blog about stakeholder engagement and some of the events leading up to the tendency for businesses and organizations to look beyond clients and suppliers. But in order to be effective a systematic approach is needed that will enable organizations to categorize and absorb the knowledge gained from a more outgoing approach.

Other forms of stakeholder engagement can come through compliance and reporting on the corporations’ ability to conform to certain standards. There are many good reasons why corporations engage on compliance strategies. The main arguments are:

  1. Stamp of approval through accreditation
  2. Attractiveness to social responsible investors, and
  3. Branding the company as a social responsible member of the community (Locke et al, 2006:1f).

Initiatives such as Global Compact (GC), Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) or the supplementary Principles for Responsible Investments (PRI), enables companies to increase their transparency level (United Nations Global Compact, 2008, UNEP Finance Initiatives, 2005, Global Reporting Initiative, 2006). Some of these initiatives are sponsored by the United Nations (UN) and thereby giving companies that abide to the standards, a stamp of approval from a world recognised institution. Other standards organisations are private or semi-governmental institutions that have created systems for governing sustainable behaviour as for example systems issued by the International Organisation for Standardization[1].

Systems can also be grouped by industry or be customized to the individual company where they are called Code of Conduct or similar systems. Common for Codes of Conduct are that they in some form are linked to universal agreed treaties such as the human rights, labour standards or environmental agreements. There are, however, some drawbacks in relying too heavily on these systems. A company like e.g. Nike has adopted a comprehensive Code of Conduct system of standards and control which both rely on internal and external auditing, but has found that this does not safeguard the company from criticism on labour standards in its supply chain (Locke et al, 2006). The lessons learned from Nike is that standards and systems should not stand alone but should be complimented by other forms of stakeholder engagement such as joint training with suppliers and frequent meeting activities both formal and socially to increase cultural exchange between the parties (Locke & Romis, 2006).

The second driver for stakeholder engagement can be the access to social responsible investors. While only a few years ago the Social Responsible Investments (SRI) constituted a fraction of the total investment portfolio it was in 2008 representing investments of over 18 trillion USD (UNEP Finance Initiatives, 2005). For many companies it can be a benefit to be part of a SRI portfolio as it gives access to funds that other companies might not have access to. In addition, the system of control and auditing can enable the company to streamline its processes and get rid of organisational risk that might affect long-term profitability. Investigations into the link between profitability and CSR shows that companies that rate their CSR effort positively also have a significant better financial performance than companies that does not (Economist, 2008:6).

The third reason for adopting a compliance strategy is the potential for positive branding. The GC is now consisting of approximately 5000 companies (United Nations Global Compact, 2008) from around the world. Grouping with other well-branded businesses who subscribe to the GC standard can boost their corporate brand and increase the collective brand value of all. Other companies use CSR actively to differentiate themselves in an otherwise competitive market.

Limits to Transparency

If only the world could be more transparent it would be a much better place to live in. Companies would behave more responsible, Governments would be able to enforce rules, regulate much more effectively and people in general would have a much better idea about the powers influencing their everyday lives.

Transparency has been the mantra of the CSR movement we have hailed the word on numerous occasions on every seminar I have ever attended. When companies have come to us we have told them that If only they were a little more transparent they would not be in the mess that they are in right now! Or we have preached to them that the only way to protect themselves is if they can report on a few more indicators in order to quantify their processes and show that they are truly sustainable.

I have worked with these systems for the past 15 years and I know every one of them from A to Z. I wake up at night reciting ISO26000 on Concepts, Terms and Definitions and I know the weak points in the Global Compact and all the companies that cut corners to be part of the sustainable business movement and being FB pals with Ban Ki-Moon.

On of my friends Michael Koploy send me an entry he made on 5 Questions to Start the Sustainable Supply Chain Conversation and it made me thinking about some of the things that we continue to talk about but keep missing. He does argue for more transparency, as we all do, but also that we should take a look beyond the apparent and into the DNA of the company. The “what are we all about”-question of sustainable business. How do we get managers to think for themselves, their business and the society that they are part of at the same time?

We produce incentive plans and bonus schemes, but it did little or nothing to prevent greed and poor ethics during the initial stages of the financial crisis. We created lists of “good” companies, but they do not seem to do much better than the ones that are “bad”. We have systems upon systems that produce endless reports that only a handful of people actually read. So what is the answer to creating a sustainable DNA for business leaders?

Well for starters we should take a good hard look at our educational system both the public and private ones. What are we actually teaching our coming leaders about how to run a business? Are we teaching them how to create a sustainable business model in more than financial terms or have our business schools and universities become temples of past ideologies? I do not talk about revolution or throwing professors out on the streets (even though some of them might need to go that way), but about taking a hard look at what we actually teach our students. We know that blindly following the thinking and guidelines of Keynes, Hayek or Friedman only works in the short run (Keynes smiles) so why not take that insight seriously and bringing it into the lecture hall.

Secondly we need to make shareholders/owners accountable. It will be a significant step away from what we have been used to be doing until now and nothing like business as usual. For too many years one could have an ownership form where one could own a company but not be accountable for its actions. We appoint a board of directors, but we do not really care who they are or what they are doing, as long as they keep producing the results that we want them to. In the process they become complacent and distant from the decision making process. And when things eventually go wrong they are often caught unaware of what have been going on right under their noses.

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I have all the answers, but I do know that its takes more than measuring to create a sustainable business as Michael points out. CSR is more a symptom of a financial ideology that have been over interpreted and gone wrong than an independent movement. Our never-ending quest for accountability and transparency will not succeed until we realise that we need to make some changes to how business operate and we do not do this by replacing with just another ideology.

Carving up the elephant

CSR is never going to last. It is a management fling, which will go away in a few years. It is what we have always done noes we just call it something fancy…

For most laypersons the concept of CSR is like a very big elephant that is impossible to understand the size and reach of. There seem to be no end to what is included into the realm of CSR as long as it has to do with stakeholders, ethics, the environment or any of the other labels, which are included. And if one does not understand something it is easier to dismiss it all together than try to understand what the concept brings to the table of progressive business development.

In my thinking it is about your ability to take this ever expanding and complex concept into something that can be managed and developed in an organisational setting.  The Global Compact, OECD guidelines for multinationals or the private ISO26000 are all attempts to carve up the elephant up into manageable pieces. Not that any of these approaches are flawless, but they do represent systems that business can use to manage their CSR activities and create a meaningful framework.

The important thing to think about when creating a CSR framework for business is that it has to be directly related to what the business do. So if one is in transport your effort have to be about how CSR helps you business be even better at what it does. Too many times I have seen CSR reporting and initiatives which are detached or represents a remote connection to strategies and mission.

My advise to business would be that rather than doing a half-hearted effort, it would be better to focus on areas outside CSR which brings more value such as systems for governance, quality or excellence in process management. When the business matures and internal systems can support the effort, there is a much better chance of success with systems like CSR that goes beyond the close stakeholders.

Where there is smoke there must be fire – EU CSR policy measurement for success.

In my short series n the new EU CSR regulation I have come to the subject of EU CSR performance. Within the document there are a list of success stories highlighting what have been achieved since the last revision in 2006. The focus is on the normative institutions, which have been established and that companies have started to adhered to (on a voluntary basis of cause).

According to the CSR policy there have been significant progress in the commitment to sustainability issues from companies in the EU.

“The number of EU enterprises that have signed up to the ten CSR principles of the United Nations Global Compact has risen from 600 in 2006 to over 1900 in 2011.”

While it is nice that the number of companies and organisations who are participating the UN global compact is rising it is hardly to be a considered a success factor in itself. Of cause it depends on your perspective and what you believe that CSR should be about but basically the commitment to UN Global compact is not a set of actions it is rather a communication about a future action that you might or might not take.

Last year around 2000 organisations were thrown out of the GC because they were unable to produce a communication on progress (COP) whish is the document that you commit yourself to produce when signing up. It is a common mistake that one screen for signing up for the GC rather than to look for the COP, which at least give some basic verifiable data to look at.

The EU regards the “promise to commit” tangible proof that companies are committing themselves to the CSR cause on a bigger scale. And to the true believer this might be enough proof that CSR is really working, that organisations and companies are participating whole heartily in the movement. While this would be nice there are also some who suggest that companies participate not for the good of the world but because it reduces the risks it is subjected to and that CSR is a novel way to market your brand and your products.

So when the EU promotes the signing of different normative standards as a success indicator for CSR it is only one side of the truth. It would seem that the EU uses the criteria “where there is smoke there is fire” as a measurement for success.